Egypt's meddling in Sudan has backfired

Egypt's meddling in Sudan has backfired
6 min read

Sam Hamad

03 May, 2023
For years, Cairo has intervened in Khartoum's affairs to undermine the democratic transition and secure a military dictatorship, but the shortsighted strategy has failed as chaos and civil war now loom over its southern border, writes Sam Hamad.
Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, Chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, is welcomed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt on 30 March 2022. [Getty]

It was merely hours after armed clashes between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) broke out around Khartoum that Egypt’s meddling in its southern neighbour's conflict was exposed, highlighting the limitations and consequences of its power to shape the politics of its region. 

In the town of Merowe, which lies roughly halfway between the Egyptian border and Khartoum, the RSF released footage of Egyptian soldiers that it had captured fighting alongside the Sudanese army.

Egypt, along with a host of other regional powers, has, since the removal of the tyrant Omar al-Bashir in 2019, intervened with the intent of superimposing its own interests over the will of the Sudanese people. Though Sisi claimed that the Egyptian soldiers were in Sudan for training exercises, this was typically false – the soldiers were there as combatants against the RSF. 

Since the demise of Bashir, Egypt’s policy in Sudan has been to replicate what it considers its own successful ‘Sisi model’, namely establishing a military tyrant in civil guise.

Egypt has played a fairly major role in thwarting Sudanese hopes of civilian representative democracy in the wake of the revolution, such a as helping engender the 2021 coup in which Abdel Fattah Burhan, the leader of a military junta formally known as the Transitional Military Council (TMC), effectively installed himself as the de facto ruler of Sudan. 

Despite initially welcoming the 2022 agreement which led to a framework for the transition from military to civilian rule in Sudan, the Sisi regime has worked hard behind the scenes to undermine it. 

Sisi has retained close relations with Burhan and some civilian forces in Sudan, leading to the creation of an alternate framework designed to circumvent the official process and transform Burhan into a Sisi-esque dictator.  

This majorly contributed to the current infighting within the different factions of the junta, namely the Burhan-loyal Sudanese army and the RSF, led by the powerful warlord and Burhan’s deputy in the TMC Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as ‘Hemedti’. 

It ought to be noted that neither Burhan or Hemedti support democracy or progress in Sudan. The RSF, which was formed out of the notoriously brutal Janjaweed militia in Darfur, is an independent paramilitary force serving as an auxiliary for the Sudanese army.

In the 2021 coup, while Burhan became leader, Hemedti was his chief ally in toppling the civilian government, with both also having a history of genocidal crimes in Darfur and other recent crimes, including massacres against pro-democracy protesters in 2019 and 2021. 

Thus, the tension between the two has emerged not around significant political differences, but rather a power struggle for control of the country and particularly its lucrative illegal gold mines

The immediate catalyst for the military conflict between the two was the failure of an agreement between Burhan and Hemedti regarding the integration of the RSF into the army.

Perspectives

The deal would have effectively turned Hemedti into Burhan’s equal, with the warlord attempting to change his image and gain popular consent by calling the 2021 coup a mistake, all the better to appear statesmanlike.  

Egypt’s role has seen it throwing its ever-shrinking weight behind Burhan. They fear that Hemedti is politically unpredictable and could do anything to cement power, with particular fear over losing Sudanese subservience to Egypt’s regional agenda and its opposition to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. 

The dilemma for Sisi is that most of his natural and closest allies support Hemedti. In this sense, it is truly familial infighting among some of the worst counterrevolutionary and imperialist elements to emerge against the Arab spring.

In particular, the UAE, Sisi’s senior ally, is close to Hemedti and has backed the RSF with weaponry, as has Saudi, with the RSF sending thousands of troops to support their catastrophic war in Yemen. Moreover, the UAE-backed Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and the Russian-affiliated Wagner Group have also provided support to the RSF since the fighting broke out. 

Egypt’s support for the Sudanese army will thus be tempered by its more important alliances with those who support the RSF, while the regime will be alarmed by the huge number of refugees scrambling across the border for safety.

In the recent past, Sudanese refugees have been subject to brutal racist attacks and discrimination, while facing harassment from the Egyptian security forces. It’s sadly of no surprise that Egypt’s militaristic anti-migrant border forces have treated the recent refugees with contempt, failing to provide them water, food or temporary accommodation while making them wait in long lines, as well as separating families. 

Egypt will not want Sudan to fall into the chaos of civil war, despite the fact that it has helped foment such chaos. Already suffering a severe economic crisis, Egypt’s infrastructure cannot cope with an influx of refugees.

However, Egypt is also unlikely to intervene for any progressive solution to the current crisis, such as prioritising the liberty of the Sudanese people. Nor will any of the many outside forces with vested interests in Sudan.

Russia has been cosying up to the RSF to further its ambition of establishing a naval base at the Red Sea, as well as plundering Sudanese gold to fund its war against Ukraine. The UAE and Saudi both have exploitative projects of economic colonisation planned for the country.

Despite its past intervention in, proximity to and longstanding relationship with Sudan, Egypt can’t and won’t want to compete with any of these other forces, but it will still try to advance its own interests, despite the human cost. 

The fact is that a catastrophic civil war might already be too late to avert. Egypt finds itself in the position of having had enough of a negative influence to help Sudan reach the precipice of civil war, but not having the necessary reach to stop it.

Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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